Gardening…after a fashion

A Roaring Fire
A Roaring Fire

Another rainy Denman day, but I had quite a bit of coursework to complete, so I built a big fire and have been working in front of it all day. It’s been a rather miserable spring, but it’s been great for my budding vegetable garden.

One of the many things I find gratifying about growing older is that you finally (finally) learn the difference between the things you like the idea of and things you actually like. Perhaps I’m an extraordinarily slow learner, but I swear I was well into middle age before I realized that I don’t actually like parties; I just like the idea of parties. The same goes for sailing and yoga and marathon running (though it took two marathons and five halfs to figure this one out–as I said, I’m a slow learner).

When we first got the Denman place, I had great fantasies of constructing a deer fence and growing a large vegetable garden. I could keep chickens! …and goats!! Fortunately, my hard-earned self-knowledge kicked in, and I realized I would soon lose interest in an operation that involved that much commitment. Instead, I read Square Foot Gardening, and took the concept up a notch in laziness: my vegetable garden is in a series of containers on our enormous balcony. Over the past three years, I’ve figured out which crops are worth my tender-loving care and which are not: I poured my soul into my tomatoes for two years running and the final result was one small bowl of tough, nasty-tasting tomatoes. Ditto on green peppers: ONE freakin’ pepper last year. My zucchinis were full of promise! Huge leaves sprouted up quickly, but the result was ultimately five thumb-sized zucchinis.

Baby Spinach
Baby Spinach

What I have managed pretty well are a collection of herbs, which serve me well all summer long, and a collection of various leafy vegetables: spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, lettuce–(all kinds), mesclun mix.

I have so many containers of leafy stuff going that once I get going, we can have fresh leafy greens every evening for dinner. I just snip a few leaves off a bunch of plants, and I have a salad.

Sprouting Collard Greens
Sprouting Collard Greens

Once I’ve exhausted a bin, I’ll throw a few fresh trowels of earth in and start a fresh batch of seeds, and within a few days, they’re sprouting. I planted these collard greens about a week ago, and they should be good to snip by late next week. The seed instructions always say to plant the seeds in rows and pick off the smaller shoots when they come up, but I prefer the Darwinian approach and just let the fittest survive as they will. Rather than harvest an entire head, I’ll just snip off the outer leaves.

I always fancied that I’d like watercress and liked the idea of a leafy vegetable that’s a perennial, so I grew some last year. It turned out to be tough and nasty (and kind of hard to harvest), so I dug it up and planted it in a mushy area of the lawn. It’s doing quite well down there, and if I’m ever desperate for greens, I know where to go.

My herbs are a work in progress–I couldn’t kill my mint, chives, and oregano if I tried, but my basil and dill are annuals, and I need to pick up a few plants every spring. My parsley and cilantro are a bit fickle: sometimes they come back; sometimes they don’t. My rosemary is supposed to be a perennial, but I managed to kill it last year. Oh well, I have another to kill this year. And I did break down and get ONE tomato plant, but I’m determined to completely ignore it. I’m convinced last year’s plants sensed my Willy-Lomanish need for them to succeed,  so this year I shall subscribe to Uncle Charley’s approach to child rearing: benign neglect. I don’t expect them to become lawyers, but a tomato or two would be nice.

And the easiest crop of all is the sprout! Here’s my full-grown crop ready for the harvest:

Sprouts
Sprouts

I was a little timid with my first couple of batches because I thought they were more fragile than they are. I didn’t even attempt to wash the hulls off because I thought I’d break the sprouts. I seem to have lost all reverence for the tiny little lives, however, since I tossed them all in a salad spinner, soaked them in water, and spun the heck out of them. Most of the hulls flew off and the sprouts were much crisper as a result of having been spun.

In some ways, gardening is a bit like cooking: you have to be patient, and you have to be brave (or at least not timid).  Now that I think about it, I guess that’s true of life as well.

Another lesson learned far too late.

Living Food…

My dad has always gone on health jags–for a period of time in the 1960s he even followed a macrobiotic diet. He didn’t stick to that particular trend for too long, but he has retained his interest in healthy eating. He used to grow his own sprouts in the 1970s, and he taught me how to do it–not that it takes much “teaching”…it’s pretty basic. I have been thinking about growing sprouts for a while now because they seem like an easy way to add micronutrients to every meal–apparently, anything that’s sprouted increases its nutritional value by leaps and bounds. Plus, they make everything taste so fresh. In my reading last summer, someone (Michael Pollan?) indicated that the less time between picking and eating, the better. With sprouts, they’re still growing even as you pop them into your mouth–what could be better! My dream is to start growing wheatgrass, which is supposed to be amazingly good for you. Rebar Modern Food brings in fresh wheatgrass every few days for their most popular item: wheatgrass juice (I don’t really get the whole juicing thing–why not eat the whole article?–but à chacun son goût).

Anyway, when I was shopping in Edible Island a couple of weeks ago, I came across a whole range of seeds for sprouting. I picked up a package of alfalfa seeds (only because that was the sprout my dad and I grew forty years ago). I got two jars of sprouts going, and within just three or four days had two jars full of delicious alfalfa sprouts. I’m now on my third batch and have been putting the sprouts in my morning smoothie, my lunchtime sandwich, and our evening salads. So thrilled am I with the ease with which I’ve been able to grow more live food that I picked up a couple more packages yesterday when we were in town: a spicy lentil mix and a bean mix.

All you do is put a couple of tablespoons of seeds in the bottom of the jar, cover it with a cup of water for 2 – 4 hours, then drain. After that, you just rinse and drain the seeds twice a day, and they’ll sprout and be ready to eat in a few short days. This nine-minute video gives you the long version of how to grow sprouts:

I used mason jars. At first, I was using a square of muslin held in place with a wide elastic on top, but the muslin wasn’t porous enough, and the water took forever to drain (particularly with my two new mixtures). J had some leftover material for screens, however, so I tried that, and it worked like a charm.

Here are my seeds in their growing jars. The two on the right are alfalfa sprouts (my third “crop”!)–they are still in their initial soak. The two on the right have been going for about twenty-four hours, so I won’t see anything for a few days yet.

Sprouts!
Sprouts!

And here is the finished product: a bowl of delicious alfalfa sprouts:

Alfalfa Sprouts
Alfalfa Sprouts